Michael Osborne

Outrageous visionary of Irish racing


Michael Osborne, vet, stud manager and racing administrator: born Naas, Co Kildare 14 July 1934; married (two sons, three daughters); died Naas 21 December 2005.

Within the sport of racing, even though he never trained, rode, or owned a notable horse, Michael Osborne was talked of with a mixture of admiration, awe and often disbelief. Although he was a qualified vet originally, Osborne's role was ultimately much greater than that - and certainly harder to define. In many ways he was racing's "go to" man: if you had a plan, an idea, no matter how great it was in ambition, Osborne would offer his advice on it and very often see that it was done.

Osborne was an outrageous and versatile visionary, whose name became synonymous with landmark racing events, most notably the Dubai World Cup. Even though it is only 10 years old, the Dubai World Cup has become one of the world's most prestigious races and one of the most valuable, offering easily more prize-money than, for example, the Derby. Osborne was the architect of the race's rise to prominence, securing a particular coup in the opening year when he persuaded Allen Paulson, the owner of Cigar, the world's best racehorse at the time, to run in the inaugural World Cup. Even in 1996 it was virtually unheard of for a high-quality American racehorse to compete on anything other than its own continent.

The backing for the Dubai World Cup inevitably came from Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, a member of the ruling family. A passionate racing man, Sheikh Mohammed had a thirst for excellence and he had recruited Osborne several years earlier to help with the unlikely ambition of turning Dubai into a major racing and training centre. It says much for the ambition and talent of both men that they succeeded.

When he qualified as a vet in Co Kildare in 1957 Michael Osborne could have no idea of the odyssey that awaited him. Having spent the next 12 years in practice, he was appointed manager of the Irish National Stud, where his talent for "thinking outside the box" soon came to prominence.

For example, the mating of a successful stallion with a brood-mare is by necessity, considering the sums involved, a controlled, sterile activity taking place in a barn and witnessed by a number of stud hands who often quite literally offer a helping hand in the mating process. Osborne decided to go back to nature by letting loose a little-known stallion, Tepukei, in a field full of brood-mares, many of whom had been barren for several seasons, and left them to their own devices. Tepukei ensured that his entire harem was soon in foal, often at the first covering.

As the name suggests, the Irish National Stud is a flagship operation for the country's breeding industry, itself a key part of the economy. Keen to boost the popularity of the stud's visitors' centre, Osborne hit upon the idea of displaying the skeleton (traced with some difficulty to an unmarked field) of the legendary racehorse Arkle, probably the greatest steeplechaser that has ever raced.

Osborne's growing reputation led to international interest and in 1986 he left Ireland to work for Franklin Groves as manager of his famous North Ridge Stud in Kentucky. Ten years later he had teamed up with Sheikh Mohammed, setting up an Irish breeding base for the sheikh at Kildangan Stud, which Osborne's son Joe now manages and where his daughter Meta acts as chief vet.

Kildangan became a showpiece stud and soon Osborne's role with Sheikh Mohammed had expanded. He was the architect of the World Series concept of international horses competing against each other in a number of races around the globe. Although the concept of a World Series has yet truly to make its mark and has many critics, Osborne had been undimmed in his ambition to create racing's equivalent of a Formula One grand prix-style circuit and last year was appointed chairman of the World Racing Championships committee. Months before his death, he had been working to ensure a successful revamped concept.

Among the numerous racing positions held by Osborne, he was a director of Horseracing Ireland, the country's ruling racing authority, chairman of the Curragh and Punchestown racecourses and chairman of Ireland's leading sales company, Goffs. Away from the sport, he was a keen supporter of Kildare's Gaelic football club. To deal with, he was an engaging man, sometimes mischievous, often indiscreet - but only as indiscreet as he wanted to be.

Sheikh Mohammed described him as "a hugely influential figure in world racing". "It was Michael who established the Dubai World Cup as a great international race," he said:

Michael always had enormous enthusiasm - for horses, for Ireland and for Dubai. Nearly 20 years ago, he was the one who bought Kildangan Stud for me. He really loved the farm and it is fitting that he is going to be laid to rest in the graveyard at Kildangan.

Richard Griffiths

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